Jewish Beliefs About GMOs
Like most environmental issues, the growing supply of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food raises many concerns. Although GMO crops can feed more people, they also put people’s health at risk and degrade the environment. Small farmers can make more money growing and selling more crops, but buying GMO seeds gives corporations a lot of power over these small farmers. Along with these ethical concerns, religious groups must also wrestle with the theological issues GMOs raise.
When religion tries to apply ancient texts to modern technology there is rarely a clear answer. Application of Jewish laws and ethical traditions has burdened the GMO debate with numerous contradictions. In figuring out Jewish beliefs on GMOs we may be left with only one theological question: Can humans make God’s creation more perfect?
Jewish Law as it Applies to GMOs
Consistent with the principle that anything not expressly prohibited by God is permitted, Jewish law, or halacha, generally takes a permissive position on GMO food. But just because halacha doesn’t expressly prohibit GMO food, doesn’t mean it’s entirely silent on the issue.
The kashrut laws dictate what foods are kosher and what foods are not. While all plants are considered kosher, genetic material from non-kosher animals can be mixed with kosher foods. If this happens, most rabbinic authorities still consider GMO food kosher. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel points out that genetic material that is transferred from non-kosher species is not considered “food,” has no taste, and exists in such a small amount as to make it negligible.
Perhaps Bakshi-Doron’s thinking makes sense if the GMO food is already a kosher food. For example, genetically modified salmon (kosher) contains the gene of an eel (non-kosher), so that it can grow to market weight quickly. In this case, the eel’s genes would not affect salmon’s kosher status because the genes have no taste and exist in a small amount. But what if the genes of a pig (non-kosher) contain the genes of a cow (kosher), so that the pig has cloven hooves suitable for a Jewish market? Where do you draw the line?
On the prohibition of kilayim, or mixing of different species of animals and plants, described in Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9-11, and the midrash, the permissibility of GMOs is even more muddled. Most rabbinic authorities rule that the prohibition is restricted to interbreeding. It is permitted to engage in the non-sexual transfer of genetic material between different species of animals or between animals and plants.
But even without the sexual transfer of genetic material, genetic engineering of plants may be kilayim. Some halacha authorities say that genetic engineering of plants does not pose a problem unless the material transferred has the ability, if the plant is in the ground, to grow a complete plant on its own, which is seldom the case with GMO crops. But according to Rabbi Karelitz, a major halacha authority of the 20th century, transferring plant juices from one plant species to another can be considered kilayim if the juices have the ability to cause new growth of the donor species in the receptor.
The current interpretation of halacha does not expressly prohibit GMOs. But this could change as the field of genetic engineering expands and new species are developed.
Do GMOs Violate Jewish Ethics?
Although Jewish law may not expressly prohibit GMO food, that does not mean that it is ethically permissible. In Judaism, humans must work to bring the world closer to perfection and not further away. While GMO food may increase the quality and quantity of the world’s food supply — a benefit — it also could cause negative health and environmental impacts — a risk. Rabbi Tsvi Freeman urges Jews to scrutinize GMO foods closely to determine whether they are actually beneficial or detrimental to the environment and humankind.
Do GMOs Make the World More Perfect?
God created a world that was “good,” not “perfect.” Jewish tradition posits that humans were created in the image of God to be partner with God in perfecting themselves and the natural world. In a midrashic story, Rabbi Akiva is challenged by a Roman general to defend the Jewish practice of circumcision, the apparent mutilation of the Creator. Rabbi Akiva points to the conversion of wheat to bread to show that, sometimes, the work of God is unfinished and humans can, and should, provide the final touches.
But this doesn’t mean that all final touches are perfect. In the midrash, when God showed Adam the Garden of Eden, God warned Adam not to spoil or destroy the world, for if he does, there will be nobody after him to repair it. Religious laws, such as bal tashkhit the prohibition against needless waste or destruction, are supposed to prevent needless destruction.
Do GMO crops create a more perfect world? Did God want us to make wheat short and stubby so that it could support more fertilizer? Do the genes of an eel make salmon more perfect? There is no clear answer to these questions. Without clear guidance from God, Jews are left to exercise their own free will to determine whether GMO crops make the world a better place.
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